Our trip began with a 4AM wake-up and drive to the
Malpensa airport north of Milan to catch the 7AM charter flight
to Marsa Alam on the Red Sea two thousand miles south. In spite
of our well planned and early departure from home, we had some
excitement before the flight trying to follow the tour operator's
instructions to the long term car park. Even with a map we got
lost and drove around for several minutes before seeing a van
from the parking lot we were looking for and following it back
home. We were booked through an Italian tour operator thus become
part of their group at the airport which even at 6AM was teeming
with vacationers waiting for their flights.
The four hour flight from Milan to Egypt took us down the Italian boot, across the Mediterranean and about half way down the west shore of the Red Sea to Marsa Alam. The airport, open less than a year, is quite modern and attractive, and will likely be the reason for rapid development of the tourist business along the middle and southern sections of the Egyptian Red Sea coast. As we motored north along the coast to our hotel we noticed no less than ten resort hotels either completed or under construction. With the exception of these new constructions and the occasional military buildings, this coast line is essentially untouched. The highway is new and nearly empty, but give it ten years and it will likely be quite different. The only town we saw during our one hour and forty-five minute transit was El Quseir, a sleepy fishing port, that looks like it has seen better days.
One notices right away the number of well armed police and soldiers along the highway. Periodically the bus passes through checkpoints with a wave, but you notice that security must be a concern along this stretch of highway and remember the bus attack in 1998 when several Germans were killed near Luxor by a terrorist group ambush. The last thing the Egyptian government wants is another incident to scare away the tourists.
Finally we arrive at out hotel, the Flamenco Beach Resort. It is a only three years old and probably one of the first to open along this section of the Red Sea coast. Sitting directly on the beach it almost seems out of place in the stark surroundings of the Arabian desert where a rain once every four years is about normal. Nothing grows that isn't irrigated so the hotel is a virtual oasis. The friendly staff is right there to help us to our rooms and we begin to relax in the pleasant surroundings and comfortable temperature of winter time Egypt. The daytime high is about 25 C. (77 F.), but dips to about 10 C. (50 F.) in the clear, cool evenings. Even so the ocean temperature maintains about 22 C. (72 F.) so swimming is always comfortable without thermal protection. Even Santa has managed to find his way here, and the hotel is in full Christmas décor complete with windows painted with snow flakes even though the decorators most likely have never seen the real thing.
The first and most important thing we must do is schedule the activities for our week. This proves to be a bit of a challenge as all the other folks are competing for the attention of the guide services which provide the transportation and guides for the tours to points of interest. We got lucky with finding a tour to Luxor immediately, but had to really work to get on a jeep safari. The hotel has a complete scuba diving operation on site so setting up some dives was no problem, but Justin still needed to take the basic dive training course. Getting that set up proved to be more of a problem since there were very few students on the waiting list. Eventually it all worked out for everyone to do what they wanted, but it seemed like more of a struggle than it should have been.
Our tour package included half board which means breakfast and dinner were included. The food was mediocre at best. It all looked really tasty, but most dishes lacked the spices to make them really appealing. We eventually tried the expensive alternative to the main dinning room by eating at the so called Italian restaurant. Things were a little better there, but the chef and the barman could spend some time improving on their respective trades. Most likely the reason for the dull food and weird mixed drinks is that Egyptians don't have much experience with the tastes of European cuisines nor do they consume alcoholic beverages being mostly Moslems. Whatever the reason, the lack of alternatives to eating at the hotel doomed us to a week of not so exciting dinning, but may have saved us from gaining the usual holiday pounds.
Ryan and Greg spent most of the first half of the week underwater, doing two dives a day while Justin did the diving course and Lana lounged the beach and shopped the local tourist traps located just outside the hotel entrance. Towards the end of the week we managed to get in our jeep safari to have dinner and ceremonial dance with a Bedouin family at their desert camp. The Arabian desert is really dry. As previously mentioned, rain happens only once every three or four years. Water comes from hand dug wells that have existed for hundreds of years in some places and each family has a well. The Bedouins exist by raising stock, mostly goats and sheep. They sell the animals for money and eat them for food. When the rain does come it usually happens in November. It is intense and creates a flood that covers most of the lower elevations so the families start moving up hill when it starts. After the water subsides they move back to their former camp and for a short time enjoy the desert bloom which follows. It is a very basic, but tranquil existence. There are few sounds, no machines except the occasional jeep and of course the animals. The evening sky is filled with stars as there is no artificial light to hide them and the air is very dry. Spending an evening in this desert was a spiritual experience. It's not difficult to understand how the ancient people could have come to believe that the stars themselves were representations of gods and goddesses.
The trip to Luxor was another early rising experience. Our tour bus arrived punctually at 5AM so that we could rendezvous with the other buses that would eventually form the daily tourist convoy. Each convoy is escorted by well armed police for the ninety mile transit through the rugged desert mountains from the Red Sea coast to Luxor city on the Nile river. Luxor was known as Thebes in ancient times, but the name was changed by the invading Arabs who became the rulers of modern Egypt following the disintegration of Roman rule and a brief period under the control of the Coptic Christians. The city was the capital when Egypt was in her golden period. The pharaohs of this period ruled both the upper and lower Nile regions under one government. Egypt was for a time the most powerful nation in what has become to be called the Mid East. From about 2500 to 1000 BC the Egyptians produced the now famous tombs, monuments, temples and pyramids. As with many empires, ancient Egypt was overcome both by external competition and internal corruption. The last bone fide royal, Queen Cleopatra along with her Roman General lover, Mark Antony, was defeated in a naval battle by the Romans at Actium in 31 AD.
Crossing over the Nile to the west bank, our first stop in Luxor was the Valley of the Kings where many of the most powerful and some of the least known royalty was buried. Archaeologists are still probing this area for new tombs. We visited a couple of those open to the public, but as we knew beforehand all of the burial treasures had been removed to various museums. Only the walls of the tombs themselves remain. On these are many hieroglyphics. The figures and cartouches are faded, but after five millenniums are still clearly visible. In general we were a bit disappointed with the tombs. Even taking pictures of the walls was generally forbidden and the rules were enforced by photo nazis who seemed to be everywhere. Lana managed to take one shot by flash which is strictly forbidden even with a camera permit. If you are short on time visiting Luxor we recommend skipping the Valley of the Kings.
The next stop was the partially restored temple of Hepsubshut, the bogus queen ruler, who managed to take over the Egyptian throne for thirty-one years by manoeuvring her young nephew out of his pharaohship. Unwisely she didn't kill him, and when he grew up returned to do her in and destroy most of her palace. The remaining bits have been more or less used as part of a massive restoration project which appears to be about eighty percent finished.
Back to the east bank of the Nile we stopped for a lunch break at a local hotel. We continued our tour with a visit to the temple of Karnak. This site was built as a show place and worship center. It contains many impressive monuments and the famous obelisks which look like miniature Washington monuments or perhaps the other way around. This temple and most of the other ancient sites were completely covered with sand when first discovered over a hundred years ago. Apparently they weren't of much interest to the locals living nearby. Together with the pyramids near Cairo they now help generate Egypt's second largest source of income. The last stop on our tour was the temple of Luxor. Not as large as Karnak but perhaps more intact, this ruin contains massive stone columns. How the Egyptians managed to create and transport such heavy items is still a wonder. Even today erecting these structures would be a challenge requiring the assistance of powerful cranes and other heavy construction gear. It is said that Napoleon visited Luxor during his campaign in Egypt and even set up his headquarters in this temple. To think of all the famous persons who may have set foot in this place makes one feel quite insignificant.
Following the long ride back to our hotel we get one last night's rest before our departure. Egypt is a poor country by modern standards, but rich in ways that money can't buy. We found without exception the people to be friendly and courteous, the weather flawless, and the sights beyond compare. Egypt gets a five star on the places we have visited.
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